Recently I was talking to a man from Chicago who was eating lunch. He asked about how monks don’t eat after midday. I mentioned that these days, I actually do a fair bit of fasting – the so-called 5/2 fast where while 5 days a week you eat what you like, 2 days a week you eat no more than 500 calories. This form of light diet control has been in the spotlight after a popular documentary by Dr Michael Mosely called Eat, Fast and Live Longer.
British journalist and physician Michael Mosley sets an ambitious goal: to become healthier and lose weight while making as few changes as possible to his life. In working toward these goals, Mosley discovers a powerful new science behind the old idea of fasting, a program that still allows him to enjoy his favorite foods.
Before you foodies will recoil in horror, and cite all kinds of unresearched ideas of not burdening your system, or ‘maintaining blood sugar’, the facts are that light fasting such as the 5/2 diet is very good for the health.
Our friend from Chicago said his wife “does things like that”, but that “I could never do it”.
What he really means is ‘he could never do that without feeling a bit hungry.’
It is not like his wife, or myself, have magical bodies that don’t feel hungry if they don’t eat. So what is the real difference? Just the willingness to suffer a little bit, and not be afraid of it.
The first Noble Truth is suffering (Dukkha), and the text says, ‘suffering is to be understood’. You can’t understand something you don’t acknowledge. It is not ‘hungry’ that is unpleasant, but the suffering you create around it. The fact is: if you make the decision to go without food for a little while – like 24 hours – you won’t die, you won’t fall ill, and you don’t need to suffer. Sure your stomach feels a little light, but it is only if you start thinking about food, complaining in the mind, planning menus – that you start to suffer. Actually, if you are a meditator, you will likely find that your meditation is improved with a little light fasting.
So, last week the Bangkok Post ran a story on the world’s oldest known man. Jiroeman Kimura is supposed to be the oldest man ever recorded (whose age can be proven) at the age of 116 years. He was born in 1897. When I am 116 it will be 2085 and we will have colonies on Mars.
The Post article finishes with Jiroman’s motto:
to eat light and live long
Apparently this Japanese man eats only until he is 80% full.
This link to his age is purely anecdotal of course, since there will be a whole range of factors, including luck, contributing to Kimura’s longevity. But there is another centenarian who can back him up.
Harmander Singh a 102 year old vegetarian marathon runner, said the secret to achieve longevity lies in his diet, that is to eat “a child’s portion” and “to eat to live, not live to eat” (Reference)
Caloric restriction has a lot of adherents, philosophically if not at the actual dinner plate. It stems from early studies with mice on low calorie diets, that lived longer than their gluttonous cousins. This led to a long term study on rhesus monkeys that seemed to confirm lean monkeys live longer. There are questions over the data, but all sides in the debate confirm that the diet-restricted monkeys fare better in health markers such as cholesterol, blood pressure and triglycerides. They may or may not live longer, but they certainly live healthier. (Reference)
the 57 calorie-restricted monkeys had healthier hearts and immune systems and lower rates of diabetes, cancer or other ills than the 64 control monkeys. But there was no longevity pay-off.
“You can argue that the calorie-restricted animals are healthier,” said Austad. “They have better cholesterol profiles, less muscle loss, less disease. But it didn’t translate into greater longevity. What we learn from this is you can un-link health and longevity. (Reference)
The question is, why it is so hard to stop eating? You won’t fall ill and you won’t get withdrawal symptoms unless you panic. I saw this once in a restaurant I worked at my ill spent youth, where one lady sued our establishment. After waiting one and half hours for a table, she had fainted.
When you undertake a fast, of course you feel a bit hungry. After eating, the food in your stomach will supply your body with excess blood sugar for about 4 hours. The excess is absorbed by your liver. After four hours, the food is no longer flooding you with sugar, salt and fat, your body switches out of food storage mode, into maintenance mode. Your liver now keeps you supplied with blood sugar and nutrients. It runs your system for about 24 hours, before releasing growth hormone that triggers the release of energy stored as fat. If you eat highly processed foods, then the food is absorbed faster, resulting in feeling hungry again sooner. Compare how soon you feel hungry after between Mac D’s to steel cut oats.
Once your system is no longer running on the food in the stomach, and is being controlled by the liver, then the cells enter ‘repair’ mode, rather than energy absorption mode, and so the body starts to heal. This is why the body releases a hormone when you are ill, that stops you wanting to eat – which is counter-intuitive right? But the fact is your body knows that for healing to take place, it should not have resources taken up by the digestive system.
So was our friend right, that he ‘could never do that’? Monastic training shows you can live without all kinds of things you thought you needed. Lay visitors to my room for instance, can’t believe I don’t have any kind of bed. One visitor ate lunch in my temple, and remarked the food was ok. I pointed out they also ate breakfast, and would eat at least twice more that day, plus snacks. What if that lunch was it – the only food of the day. “I could never do that!”
“I can’t get up early in the morning!” said one young monk to me. Like it was some kind of physical disability. “I’m really a night person,” he explained. But when failing to get up means missing breakfast, and feeling shamed when everyone else rose early … he soon found that he ‘can’ get up after all.
“It’s so hot, I can’t stand it,” said one lay person to me when I was in their house and had not turned on the air-con. They were Thai too. Maybe they can stand it. Maybe it is not all that bad, if they don’t make it something bad. Maybe your life will change in some small way when you can change ‘can’t’ to ‘don’t like to’.
When in doubt about this, I think of some of the prisoners I have met in Bang Kwang, who manage to sleep without air-con all night, in a room where you have to pay extra to get enough space to lie on your back. There are all kinds of things you find you can do, and can live without, if you are willing to understand the arising and the cessation of Dukkha (suffering)
Our friend from Chicago told me “I can’t possibly go for a day without eating.” He was tucking into pita bread and Indian curry, battered cauliflower and broccoli, with a side order of Waldorf salad. And after that he had a fancy dessert. Somehow, I can’t possibly believe him.